Archive for Rewriting

In the previous post I shared Robert Ringer’s first (of three) rules of writing. Here’s his rule number two, which I think is even more important for screenwriters than for novelists.

Simplicity is crucial. Can the reader quickly understand what you are trying to say? Eliminate verbal furniture.

Ringer says he learned this from the classic book, The Elements of Style. I think it’s more important than ever because these days there are even more distractions for the reader and because overly ornate or long-winded descriptions can slow a screenplay down to a crawl.

That doesn’t mean your writing can’t have a style. Elmore Leonard has a great sparse style. So does Raymond Carver but I don’t think you’d ever mistake his writing for Leonard’s. In screenwriting, William Goldman is a good example–his scripts have personality but it doesn’t overwhelm the story.

In doing the research for my new book, Your Creative Writing Masterclass, which includes writing advice from classic authors, the notion of simplicity comes up again and again. Anton Chekhov and Mark Twain were among the proponents.  (Plug: that book comes out in January—you can pre-order it now from Amazon.)

One way to simplify is to hunt for unnecessary adjectives. Newer writers sometimes go for the rule of three on this: three adjectives per noun. Too much.

Adverbs also are great candidates for pruning, especially when they apply to how dialogue is expressed: “Give me that right now!” he said angrily–or in screenplays, the parenthetical (angrily) between the character’s  name and his dialogue. Given the words themselves and possibly your description of the person, it should be obvious that he’s angry.

Ringer quotes from  Elements of Style: “the power of understatement is enormous.”

Next post: Ringer’s third rule of writing.

One of my rules of writing is, if you need support and guidance, get it! One way to do that is to join my online Writing Breakthrough Strategy program. You can find out more and sign up at

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The other morning I received a newsletter that included Robert Ringer’s three rules for writers and I think they’re worth making your own, whether you are writing a screenplay or anything else.

In case you’re not familiar with him, years ago Robert Ringer had a best-selling book called Winning Through Intimidation. That was a misleading title (which he changed in more recent editions) because really it was about standing up for yourself, not bullying people.

Here are the two parts of his first rule of writing, along with my comments:

1a: Force yourself to write; once you get going, don’t stop to congratulate yourself.

The idea behind the first part of this is that if you take writing seriously you can’t wait for inspiration to come to you. You have to go to it (even if it’s hiding and won’t come out at first).

In one of my writing workshops a participant said he tried to do this, but some days he would feel blocked in working on his project. I asked him what he did on those days. “Uh…just look around the internet,” he said.

I suggested that instead he start writing about one of his characters—anything, not necessarily material that would be in the script. For instance, if it was eight in the morning when he sat down to work, write about what his protagonist would be doing at eight in the morning.

He looked sceptical but told me he’d try it and report back to me.

A couple of weeks later I heard from him. He said not only did it work in terms of getting his writing juices flowing, it also promoted some new ideas for the plot.

(You’ll find 25 specific ways to get the flow of ideas going, in my book “Creativity Now!” (Pearson Publishing). You can get it from Amazon or your other favorite book seller.)

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I love good black comedies so I’m looking forward to seeing “The Guard.” In the meantime I’m making do with an interview with writer-director John Michael Donagh on the Den of Geek website.

His first refreshing statement is about indie films that often are described as “little gems.” He says “I didn’t want the film to feel like a small, low-budget Irish film, where they go, “Oh, it’s a little gem.” I hate little gems. I never go to see little gems. They’re just shit movies, basically. [Laughs]”

His goal was to make the movie feel much bigger than the budget and not be constrained by having a character that fits the stereotypes. Of his protagonist, Sgt. Gerry Boyle, he says, “And it’s funny, in a film where you’d think that a character’s so outrageous, and so obnoxious sometimes, that was the one that people connected with. Whereas, in all these screenwriting workshops, would that character ever be created?”

Next to be shot down: the character arc: “Gerry’s just the same at the end – he hasn’t learned anything. He’s going to say the same shit at the end as he did at the beginning.”

Well, surely the two characters who go through the difficult events of the movie end up good friends? “Not necessarily…Just because you’ve been through the wars with someone, it doesn’t mean you like them. You respect them. That’s what we were getting at in the film.”

Hmm, it sounds like there’s a TINY arc.

Finally, one more quote, this one about what he learned in the process of editing the film and getting other people’s reactions to the rough cut: “as a writer director, I was too much in love with all the lines. Scenes go on too long because you’re trying to get five gags in, whereas three gags would be better for the pace. It’s a basic thing of starting a scene later, and ending it quicker.”

So even if the film is lesson-free, the process wasn’t. In fact this last point represents one of the most common errors in screenplays including mine–but I do cut the fat as part of writing the second draft.

(For some friendly guidance in creating characters for movies or novels see my book, “Your Writing Coach,” published by Nicholas Brealey and available from Amazon ad other online and offline booksellers. You can find out more at

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